Will the real Sixers please stand up

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After a 20-9 start, the Sixers are just 9-14. (Alex Brandon/AP)

It's not fair to label the stellar start the 76ers had to the 2011-12 season as "fool's gold."

Yes, the Sixers' 20-9 record that, at the time, ranked near the top of the NBA had some fans dreaming of the Sixers finally stepping out of a decade's worth of mediocrity and being a legitimate factor in the Eastern Conference.

But raising dreams is not the same as raising expectations. Most fans understood exactly what was going on with the Sixers.

They realized that the lofty record had been built off a schedule that had been favorable with home games and marginal opponents.

They knew that as the opponents got better and more games were played away from the Wells Fargo Center there would be a leveling out.

That's exactly what has happened.

Now we are left to sort through some confusion about just what the Sixers are and what this program needs to do moving forward.

"I think [the Sixers] need to decide what they want to do and how they want to go forward with [Andre] Iguodala, Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner," an NBA scout who regularly attends Sixers games said recently. "All three are solid NBA players that any team would love to have.

"But will they all work together here? I guess that's a good problem to have. That's the trick moving forward. This is a good young team that really isn't that far away."

In a lot of ways, the Sixers are what you should have reasonably expected.

The Iguodala-Holiday-Turner scenario still hangs over this franchise, but if you had said before the season that the Sixers would enter the homestretch several games over .500 and battling to win the Atlantic Division, it would've been regarded as a positive building off last season.

You might not have believed they were ready to go toe-to-toe with the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls for supremacy in the Eastern Conference, but you would be comfortable that at least they were going in the right direction.

The 20-9 start clouded things.

Because the Sixers have fallen out of, or are at least sharing, the penthouse, it has led to the perception that they are back in the outhouse.

That's really not the case.

If the season is not put into compartments and instead is viewed as a whole, the Sixers are positioned to take a positive step forward.

Starting with Tuesday's game against the Atlanta Hawks, the franchise will play its most important April since 2001 when it set up its run to the NBA Finals. The Sixers are in a three-way battle with the Celtics and Knicks for the division title and a fourth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

It's a chance to win their first division title since 2000-01 and set up a winnable first-round series in the playoffs.

Miss out and they are looking at getting a sixth, seventh or eighth seed and a cameo in the playoffs. It's the kind of opportunity to step it up that the Sixers have consistently blown following 2001.

What the Sixers do in these final 15 regular-season games will tell a lot about this young nucleus of players.

We will see whether they are players the organization can legitimately stake its future on or if something needs to be overhauled as soon as this summer.

"Well, it speeds [the maturation process] up," Sixers coach Doug Collins said of the challenge of being in a playoff stretch run. "I've never understood the mentality of, 'Gosh, if you're going to be in the seventh or eighth spot in the playoffs, just miss out and go into the lottery.'

"What? And miss all of that experience? Think about the five games we played against Miami [last season in the playoffs] and what that did for our team."

Actually, that's been the problem with the peaks and valleys of this season. The Sixers' fast start and their gradual slide back to reality make it difficult to get a solid read of where they are.

Are they a rising young team that is just a piece or two away from the next level?

Or are they an organization locked into a fatal belief that these young players have ceilings higher than what we've seen so far?

Evidence supports both lines of thought.

Even the most optimistic fan cannot dismiss the fact that the Sixers' record is well below .500 in games against teams with winning records. Those defeats add credence to the argument that the Sixers will remain fundamentally flawed until they acquire or develop a superstar go-to performer.

But it is unfair to dismiss the Sixers' success against losing teams and at the Wells Fargo Center as things that don't matter. Winning at home and consistently beating inferior teams establish the foundation of building a championship franchise.

You can't take any steps forward until you've established that you can do those two things.

So where are the Sixers? Maybe they are closer than many people think.

Several NBA scouts who have watched them said they like the direction they are going.

"I agree with [the Sixers brain trust]," a scout for a Western Conference team recently said. "I love watching this team play.

"I think the way they share the ball and the way they play defense means they always have a chance to win every night. Because of their teamwork, I think they can compete right now in the playoffs. Still, it's hard to say they have that one player who can take control of a game and get calls down the stretch.

"They need one or two more pieces, but the Sixers are definitely close."

Finding out what direction to go to acquire those pieces was the thing that absolutely had to be answered this season.

Things can be done this summer.

If the Sixers choose, they can amnesty the $18.1 million they owe Elton Brand next season.

If they do that and decline to exercise their team option of $1.5 million to Craig Brackens, they could get the payroll from $67.6 million to around $37 million - assuming they exercise team options on Holiday and Turner.

That would let them be players in free agency and/or have flexibility to make a significant trade.

Still, everything moving forward comes back to what they do with Holiday, Iguodala and Turner.

I've always said they should trade Iguodala so that Holiday and Turner could figure out how or whether they can develop into a championship-caliber backcourt.

I still believe the presence of Iguodala impedes that process.

But Collins now says he is committed to seeing whether those three can have success together as starters.

How the Sixers finish will go far in determining whether they stay that way.

"That's the big question," one NBA scout said. "Can these three make it work or not? That will tell you what they need to do next."

Internally, the Sixers say they like their perimeter game, even though they do not have a reliably consistent distance shooter. They say they like what combo-guard Lou Williams and forward Thaddeus Young give them off the bench.

One Sixers executive said they are comfortable with their offense and perimeter defense, but have a pressing need for an athletic defensive presence on the front court.

The thought is that would tie everything together and let the Sixers play the kind of defense that can thrive in the playoffs.

A player like that is not cheap or easy to acquire and that's where creating cap space could come in handy.

"They play good enough defense that they have a chance to win every night," one scout said. "If they can add an explosive star to the mix, the possibilities are limitless."

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